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EBFIDDLER

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11) Part (15)
Sunday, August 5, 2012

More apples and horses. Mal finds a chicken in his bunk.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3758    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Part (15)

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Follows TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10). Precedes ENDS WITH A HORSE (12).

The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
EXPECTATIONS (04)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
SHADOW (07)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
BANDIAGARA (09)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

More apples and horses. Mal finds a chicken in his bunk.

* * *

She saw that Mal and that girl were talking in the dining room. Good. Let them keep each other engaged. Between them, they were her most formidable obstacles—the Captain because he was so suspicious of her and because he alone had the ability to unite the crew against her, and River because—well, she didn’t know why, or how, but that girl seemed to have preternatural knowledge of her plans and plots and schemes, and had foiled most of them so far. With the two of them distracting each other, she just might succeed in this endeavor. She planted the decoy trouble-maker, then proceeded with her main project.

And with the second part of her plan in action, it was just possible they might not even look for the first. They might never know she’d been here. ’Til it was too late.

* * *

“Eris.”

Mal just about choked on his apple. “Saffron bought ’em?! How—? What—?”

“Sowing discord.”

“Well, we know she’s tryin’ to take us down somehow, some way. But there ain’t been no discord over the apples. Everybody’s just been eatin’ ’em. So why would Saffron give us apples?”

“A diversion?” River suggested.

“Mayhap they’re poisoned.” Mal set the unsliced portion of his apple down on the table and felt his stomach give a lurch.

“Not poisoned.”

“Or might be grenades in ’em.” Dead of winter. Holding the line. Cold and starving. No ammo to speak of. And some apples rained down into the trench, like a gift from heaven….

“Pretty apples. Pop.”

Pop, pop, pop.

Blinking, he returned from his sojourn to find that he was still sitting at Serenity’s dining table with an apple in front of him. His heart was racing. River was looking curiously at him, and he wondered how long he’d just spent re-living the winter campaign in New Kasmir. He took a deep breath. “Zoe already told you that story, didn’t she?” he asked, clearing the thickness from his throat. She nodded. Images flooded his mind, thankfully just memories this time. Those apples were rigged with Grizwalds, pressure-sensitive grenades. Three soft little pops, and Bhukkanasut, Yang, and Ballou were missing their heads. “Three of my soldiers took a bite of them apples, afore I could stop ’em…” He trailed off, and regarded the apple before him with a grim expression.

“No grenades. But still explosive.”

Mal shook off the memories. “You mean explosive…as in…cause a ruckus. Stir up trouble.” Now they were gettin’ somewhere with this “Starts with an apple” business. He hoped River would stay focused for long enough for him to tease out her meaning. “Mayhap Saffron’s wanting us to worry about these here apples, as a distraction—to add to the chaos.”

“Eris threw the apple of discord into the gathering of the gods. Καλλίστῃ Kallistei. Started a war.”

“Whoa, wait a minute there, River. ‘Callisto’?”

Καλλίστῃ Kallistei. For the fairest,” she translated.

“An apple for the fairest? Okay. So…who’s the fairest?”

“There were three contenders. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.”

Mal nodded. “So, how’d they decide? Draw straws? Secret ballot? Rock, paper, scissors?” It was crazy, but hey, when River talked liked this, it was best to try to play along and follow as best he could.

She smiled at his suggestions, then corrected, “Went to Paris.”

“Paris? What does Paris got to do with this, Albatross?” Mal was baffled. “You mean the city on Londinium, or the one-horse settlement on Three Hills?” he queried.

“Paris was his name,” River pronounced, rolling her eyes. The Captain could be so dense sometimes. “The judgment of Paris.” The Captain was still looking a little lost, so she elaborated. “It was a man named Paris. They asked him to decide. He chose the winner.”

“Ah. Got ya,” Mal replied. “Okay, so this Paris fella, he looks at the three gals—”

“Goddesses.”

“—the three goddesses. Whatever,” he corrected, inwardly rolling his eyes.

Don’t make faces, Captain.

“And decides which one of ’em is the best-lookin’, and gives her the apple. Right?”

“No. He decides which one of them offered him the best bribe, and gives her the apple.”

Figures, Mal thought. Always knew them judges were corrupt. “So what’d they offer as bribes?”

River ticked them off on her fingers. “Power. Knowledge. Or the love of the most beautiful woman in the ’Verse.”

Mal snorted. “So he chose the woman.”

“How’d you know?” she exclaimed, suddenly all girl.

“I’m a man. As you may have noticed.”

“Men.” She rolled her eyes.

“Don’t give me that,” he shot back. “The love of a beautiful woman is something to be cherished.”

“She was married.”

“Well now. That has an affect on the landscape. So that fella Paris, he got the girl, but I reckon her husband weren’t none too pleased with the arrangement.”

“Started a war.”

“Seems a bit over-the-top.”

“Men have fought over woman’s love for millennia.”

He had no reply. He’d fought a duel with Atherton Wing—with swords, no less—over Inara.

“Her face could launch a thousand ships,” River intoned.

“A thousand ships,” he echoed, pulling himself away from thoughts of Inara. “So the husband had a few friends.”

A lot of friends. Started the Trojan War.”

“So it all started with an apple.” He looked at River. “That was an interesting history lesson, Albatross, but I still ain’t sure what it has to do with the here and now.” He picked up the apple before him, and sliced up a few more pieces.

“What begins with an apple—”

“Must end with a horse,” he finished. “Just one problem. There ain’t no horses in space.”

“Pegasus.” Her counter-example came immediately.

“Alright, I’ll grant you the constellation Pegasus.” He ate another apple slice. “You know,” he said challengingly, “there’s them as think horses and spaceships don’t go together nohow.”

風馬牛不相及 Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí.”

“So they say. But I got some fair compelling evidence says that ships and horses got a long and venerable history together.”

River’s eyes grew bright in anticipation of a good story.

“These days, we got packets of protein in all the colors of the rainbow. But back in the old days, on Earth-That-Was, they got their shipboard protein from salt-preserved meat. Used ta call it ‘salt horse.’”

River’s eyes sparkled. She loved it when he told tales of the days of the wooden sailing ships on Earth-That-Was. The ancient mariners’ map (or rather, the budget reproduction ancient mariners’ map) that he had pinned on the wall in his quarters was just the tip of the iceberg. He had a deep and abiding love for the subject, and he must have studied it or read up on it somehow. He loved ships.

“Now, it’s all a matter of conjecture, just how often that was actually true,” he continued. “It was supposed to be salt beef or salt pork, but I reckon they called it salt horse for a reason. The sailors even had a rhyme about it.” River encouraged him with a look, so he recited,
                    Old Horse, Old Horse, what brought you here?
                    “I carted stone for many a year.
                    Worn out at last by sore abuse,
                    They salt me down for sailors’ use.
                    The sailors they do me despise.
                    They kick my body and damn my eyes,
                    Cut my meat and pick my bones,
                    And throw the rest to Davy Jones.”

River nodded with enthusiasm, absorbing the words with a big grin. Her magpie mind was always collecting shiny little tidbits like that. “Horses and ships. Birds of a feather. But that is a horse of a different feather.”

“You’re talkin’ horse feathers, River?” She might be crazy, but, good gorram, this girl was witty. “Horsefeathers,” he creaked, trying to keep his sides from splitting.

“Horses were bad. Bad in the Latin. Horse: bad. Bad horse.” She started singing.
                    Bad Horse!
                    Bad Horse!
                    Bad Horse!
                    He rides across the nation,
                    The thoroughbred of sin.
                    He got the application

                    That you just sent in.
                    It needs evaluation,
                    So let the games begin.
                    A heinous crime, a show of force,
                    A murder would be nice, of course.
                    Bad Horse!
                    Bad Horse!
                    Bad Horse!

“What in the ’Verse is that 废话 fèihuà, River?” Mal exclaimed. “It’s horrible!”

“Bingo!” she exclaimed gleefully, adding, “That’s Doctor Horrible to you, Captain.”

Mal shook his head, but he was still smiling. “What am I doin’ trading rhymes and songs with you, River, at a time like this?”

“Horse-trading,” she fired back, instantly.

A great snorting guffaw burst from him. “Sometimes I just don’t understand a word you’re sayin’, River,” he said, when he could speak again. He wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Likes to play games.”

“I know you like to play games, darlin’.”

She likes to play games.”

“You mean Saffron.”

River nodded.

“So what kind of game is she playin’?”

“Playing chicken.”

“Playing chicken?” Mal repeated, not exactly understanding. Did she mean, who would flinch first?

“In ancient Zambia, on Earth-that-was, ‘chicken’ meant a woman of loose morals,” River explained wisely.

Mal nodded. Saffron fit that description, easy. Her morals was loose as eggs in a nest.

“So a man who had sex with a chicken—” River continued.

“I get that part,” Mal interrupted. “So why’s she playin’ chicken?”

“That is the question, my dear, that is the question.”

“Yeah, it sure as 狗屎 gǒushǐ is,” Mal replied, looking a little queasily at his apple.

“These apples are good and healthsome,” River remarked, taking a large bite.

* * *

Mal dropped down the ladder into his bunk and reached up to unbutton his shirt in preparation for bed. He glanced over at it, and—

“Gah!”

“I made the bed warm for you, hubby.” Saffron lay in his bed, propped up on her elbows, the sheets tucked up below her bare shoulders.

Mal’s first move was to pull his gun. “爆炸性的腹泻大象 Bàozhàxìng de fùxiè dàxiàng! You’re gonna want to pull your paws out from under cover there, nice and slow.” At her slight hesitation, he ordered, “Do it now.” She raised her hands. Without taking his eyes off her, he edged over and hit the comm.

“You’re so sweet, so kind and beautiful, husband.”

“I ain’t your husband,” he snarled.

“Sir?!” Zoe’s surprised voice came through the comm in response to his unexpected words.

“Need you and Jayne to report to crew hallway, armed,” Mal told Zoe. “Got an incident in my bunk.”

“An ‘incident,’ sir?” Zoe queried. “That what you’re callin’ her now? This ‘incident’ don’t happen to be in your bed, do she?”

Mal didn’t dignify Zoe’s remark with a response. “Now get outta my bed.” He gestured at Saffron with his gun.

“As you wish,” she said, and stood up, revealing—whoah!—flesh.

Mal quickly averted his eyes. Well, averted them as much as was humanly possible, while keeping strict watch to be sure she didn’t try something on. He forced himself to ignore the expanse of naked flesh thus exposed to him and focus on the why. Why was she in his bunk? He didn’t think for a second that it was just on account of she desired to taste of his physical charms. Could she possibly be looking for the timonium? Mal had a goodly quantity of it concealed in his bunk. It wasn’t the only place he’d stowed it—he certainly hadn’t put all his eggs in one basket—but the most significant cache was right here. Careful not to let his eyes stray in the direction of the hiding place—or anywhere away from her eyes—he confronted Saffron.

“What are you doing here?”

“I took a rain-check on our wedding night, remember?”

“Oh, I remember alright,” he replied, uncompromising. “Where are your gorram clothes?”

“Mal, peaches, I just can’t keep away from you. You really can miss a place you’ve never been, if the attraction’s strong enough. I want to be as the furrow to your plough, the…”

While she was nattering on with the seductive talk, Mal shook out her pile of clothing and searched the pockets and seams, but he had other things on his mind. He’d had a nagging worry in his mind ever since he woke from that deep sleep after the Helluva Day (as he’d come to call it in his mind) on Beaumonde. That was when he discovered that he couldn’t find the card on which Buck Holden had written the contact information for the timonium fence. Buck had told him in no uncertain terms to memorize the info and destroy the card. Well, he’d completed step one, but a lost card wasn’t near as gone as a destroyed card. Coulda been lost anywhere. On the ship. On the street. In the dockyard. And since the card was lost, Mal had to consider the contact compromised. He hoped like hell that it hadn’t fallen into the hands of Saffron. She had a talent for sneaking about. And of course there was also the secret cargo, concealed somewhere within the shipment from Holden Brothers that filled the cargo bay. She couldn’t know about that, could she? Could she have anything to do with Holden’s mole?

And meanwhile he had to deal with Saffron, all naked and articulate, in his bunk. Oh, right. He realized he’d been so preoccupied with his thoughts that it hadn’t even occurred to him to get embarrassed as his hands had searched Saffron’s undergarments for hidden contraband.

“…to his fall, and rest him then upon the sweat of her breast.”

“Uh-huh. And that still don’t explain what you think you’re doin’, sneakin’ about in my bunk. You’re supposed to be locked in your room. Now get your clothes back on. And that quote ain’t from the bible, neither.” He tossed the pile of clothing at her, retaining the electronic filament strip he’d detected in the waistband of her underwear. He cocked his gun to emphasize the point. “Zoe,” he called up the ladder, “y’all in place?”

He forced himself to ignore her seductive writhes as she wiggled into her clothes. It was too important that he remain focused on the key elements. Had to make sure that she didn’t try something on. Had to make sure that she didn’t try to conceal anything within those clothes of hers. He had all manner of dangerous and compromising things concealed within this bunk of his, and Saffron was the last person he wanted to have a hold of any of ’em.

“Up the ladder, chicken,” he commanded, his pistol unwavering in its aim. He’d heard Zoe’s limping footsteps and Jayne’s stomping and knew they were in position.

Saffron pouted, but started climbing. Mal watched from a decent distance, holding his aim steady, as she clung to the rungs and pushed herself up from the legs and hips, climbing like a girl.

* * *

She hadn’t succeeded in all her aims, but on the whole, the excursion was a successful one. She’d come and gone undetected on the bridge, getting safely away just in time, before the Captain returned to resume his watch. As soon as she entered the Captain’s quarters, she’d done a thorough search. She had found something quite interesting and left him a gift, before settling down with his personal cortex screen to work the next stage of her magic. She’d been disrupted in the midst of the process, however, as the man of the hour returned and she’d switched to playing seduction. It wasn’t often that she conducted an operation in the nude, but she had to have her—ahem—cover ready in case her presence was, er, exposed.

He’d returned to the bunk much sooner than she’d imagined he would. Based on her knowledge of his sleep habits from her prior visits, he should have stayed out wandering the corridors of his ship for another half hour at the very least. Still, it gave her a chance to play the seduction games, which was good fun.

Only this time he seemed strangely immune. She chalked it up to the Companion. Maybe he’d been getting laid regularly enough that the seduction games didn’t have the same pull as when it had been a long damn while since anybody took a hold a’ his plough, as he so quaintly put it. Still, it was odd. He and the Companion were presently estranged—sure, they were lovers, but they had quarreled, even before she came aboard. And she’d scuttled any chance for reconciliation they might have had. That project was going very well. A few more wedges to insert, and she could rest assured that she’d parted them for good, mission accomplished.

Saffron smiled. The critical elements of the mission were falling very nicely into place, one by one, two by two. Messing up Mal Reynolds’s love life was a personal mission, not strictly in the line of business, but Saffron had never been averse to mixing business and pleasure. There remained a few more tasks to complete before the ship reached Hektor and Saffron and the chickens parted ways with Serenity, but for tonight she could rest easy.

Or could she? 牛屎 Niú shǐ! Saffron realized that she had left something critical behind in the Captain’s bunk. A quick check confirmed the loss. 牛屎 Niú shǐ. When he returned to his bunk so suddenly, she’d been startled. She’d jumped under his covers, and she’d not had time to replace the thing in its hiding place. Then he pointed a gun at her and demanded to see her hands, and she’d stupidly left the thing under the bedcovers. She’d already replaced the memory stick in the small capsule, after completing the work on the bridge, but the code…the activation code…牛屎 niú shǐ! She could only hope he wouldn’t find it, and that he was too much of a 笨蛋 bèndàn to figure out what it was if he did.

* * *

Mal lay in his bunk that night, thinking over the encounter with Saffron—and grateful she weren’t still there. Leastaways the rational part of his mind was grateful. Twig and berries weren’t so grateful she was gone. Stupid twig and berries. He tore himself away from 騃 ái fantasies of wild rutting with an evil, treacherous snake woman. His thoughts jumped straight from that to Inara, and he felt a pain like a gut-punch as he realized how viscerally he missed making love to Inara. This was goin’ nowhere. Gorram nowhere. He shifted his position on the mattress and applied himself to thinking over what had happened.

Mal’s first move, after getting Saffron out of his bunk and into her room, had been to check his stashes of illicit and prohibited items and make a thorough inspection of his bunk. A quick inventory of his personal contraband collection confirmed that the bag of timonium crystals was still intact, his various hidden and illegal weapons were still ensconced in their places, the illegitimate account books, false ship’s papers, fake ident card, and the wide variety of other shady and unauthorized items that he maintained were still concealed in the various nooks and crannies that abounded in the ’03-Firefly. An unsuspicious mind would not have found much amiss, and might have missed the signs. His was not an unsuspicious mind, however, and he noted that most everything showed signs of having been disturbed. Saffron had searched his bunk very thoroughly.

Now it was Mal’s turn to search his bunk very thoroughly, and he went through everything—the desk with its financial records and ship’s log, the locker underneath the bed where he kept personal items, the drawers where he kept his clothes, even the hand towel and the roll of toilet paper hanging on their loops of rope—everything. What was Saffron looking for? He tried putting himself in her place, thinking like her—and it gave him a gorram headache. Had she gone through his financial records? Had she examined the ship’s log and recorded their recent movements? Was she looking for personal information? Was she collecting evidence for some kind of sting operation? Had she taken something? Nothing appeared to be missing. Had she planted a bug? Knowing her propensity for installing time-delay screw-up devices everywhere she went, he kept his eyes peeled for foreign objects, but didn’t find any. This was far from reassuring. It just meant he hadn’t yet missed what she took, or discovered what she’d left behind. As he shook out the bedding and searched under the mattress, a small scrap of electronic paper fluttered to the floor. Unfolding it, he found it was covered with incomprehensible letters and figures. A code.

该死 Gāisǐ. What was the purpose of this code, and why had Saffron left it in his bed?

When he considered the series of events systematically, Mal was struck by a disturbing thought. He’d left his hatch locked. There were only two ways to open a locked hatch: with the pass code, or with an override from the bridge. Which meant Saffron had done one or the other. Had she broken his code? He never wrote it down and he hadn’t told anybody the current code. Not even Zoe knew it. River didn’t even know it yet, although he reckoned she could figure it out soon as she applied herself to the task. But that was River. He just couldn’t see how Saffron coulda figured out his pass code.

But the notion of the bridge override was even more disturbing. It meant that Saffron had been on his bridge, that she’d accessed the ship’s main computer, and hacked through the security wall. And if she’d done that, who was fool enough to think she’d limited her activities to overriding the lock on his hatch?

How had Saffron managed to get the drop on them so many times? She had found she could get the drop on almost any one of them, provided she worked them over in isolation. It was the standard predatory procedure of separating the quarry from the herd. And like a predator, she found out her quarries’ weaknesses and exploited them.

And, 哦天啊 ò tiān ā, had Saffron found his weakness. His weakness was Inara. His relationship with her, or his non-relationship with her, or whatever the 地狱 dìyù it was that they had between them. As long as Inara kept him spinning in circles, distracting him, he’d end up in trouble. Find himself at the wrong end of a gun barrel, ambushed in broad daylight, turned upside down and set off balance on his own gorram ship.

Had he been able to view things objectively, Mal might have realized that every weakness had a complementary strength, the 阴 yīn to the 阳 yáng. Saffron aimed to keep him off balance. She had recognized that his relationship with Inara was a major source of confusion for him, and focused considerable attention on keeping him and Inara out of alignment. Saffron had good reason to fear the strength he would gain from a balanced relationship with Inara. She had put considerable effort into keeping the two of them parted, because had they worked together, they would have the power to defeat her purpose.

Mal tossed and turned in his bed, unsleeping, with disturbing thoughts churning in his head. Saffron hacking his bridge computer, Saffron searching his bunk, touching all his things, lying naked in his bed…该死 gāisǐ.

* * *

Saffron’s mode of operation was becoming clearer to him, but her goal, her purpose, was still obscure. Mal had already realized, with River’s help, that Saffron’s technique was to throw everybody off-balance, playing some kind of shell game, spinning them about so no one knew which eggshell contained the chick. She’d keep them spinning until no one could guess at her true goal. She wanted to get everybody too upset with themselves and each other to notice what she was really up to.

So, which of her games were distractions, and which were her true business? He couldn’t figure it out. He’d hazard a guess, though, that the apples—which didn’t seem to be poisoned, and which didn’t appear to have Grizwalds in ’em neither—were just a red herring. No one seemed to know how they’d come aboard, and while they were figuring it out, Saffron was already busy with her plot. Between the apples and the chickens, their attention would be focused on unimportant things while Saffron did something else, somewhere else. He was willing to lay money on it. What begins with an apple must end with a horse. It was clear enough what the apples were. They were the distraction. But what was the gorram horse?

Time to come up with a plan.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

Καλλίστῃ Kallistei [To the fairest (Greek)]

風馬牛不相及 Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí [Two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other (lit. “a horse and cow in heat do not look to each other”) (Chinese idiom)]

废话 fèihuà [nonsense]

狗屎 gǒushǐ [crap]

爆炸性的腹泻大象 Bàozhàxìng de fùxiè dàxiàng [Explosive diarrhea of an elephant]

牛屎 Niú shǐ [Shit]

笨蛋 bèndàn [dumb fool (lit., “dumb egg”)]

騃 ái [idiotic]

哦天啊 ò tiān ā [god]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

阴 yīn [yin]

阳 yáng [yang]

Thanks to Bytemite, whose story “Winter Campaign” inspired the part of this chapter where Mal has his flashback to the winter campaign in New Kasmir.

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COMMENTS

Sunday, August 5, 2012 1:30 PM

NUTLUCK


Was starting to wonder where this chapter was. I liked the Dr Horrible reference. Also Mal came so close with the she climbs like a girl, but guess that was to long ago for him to recall.

Monday, August 6, 2012 6:03 AM

BYTEMITE


Comments are working for me again.

Use of an s-word play can result in punomenal damage. Brings a whole new concept to sharp-witted. Be sure you're not bringing a knife to a pun fight, the repartees are killer but the entendres are calembour.

Monday, August 6, 2012 11:44 AM

EBFIDDLER


“There’s them as think horses and spaceships don’t go together nohow.” -- like Fox executives, apparently. That's why I put that in. Glad your comments are up and running again, Bytemite. What was Saffron doing in Mal's bunk? All in good time, ZM. Where was this chapter? Nutluck, it was on vacation, with me. Now it's back, and the rest of the story will be posted on schedule. Glad you enjoyed the Dr Horrible reference.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 11:06 AM

AMDOBELL


I love it when Mal puts his thinking cap on but am a bit puzzled that he does not ask River to check his bunk and see if she has any ideas about what Saffron was up to. I hope that now he knows she got on to his bridge he also gets that thoroughly checked out *mashang*. I do wonder also why they do not rotate the crew in keeping watch on her, whether she is 'locked' in a room or not. It is painfully obvious that she can get out of any room she likes they need to know how or maybehaps put a tab on her then follow it. As for the Dr Horrible reference I was laughing as soon as that came up. Very nice, and I also love the way Mal and River connect. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 4:20 PM

EBFIDDLER


Ah, Ali, you're anticipating what's coming next. I have found that writing scenes with dialog for Mal and River is great fun, and I'm glad Dr Horrible made you laugh. :-) Thanks for the feedback.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 6:08 PM

NUTLUCK


Yes you do great Mal/River moments.


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